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Context: The Supreme Court recently modified its 2022 judgment on mandatory eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) around protected forests, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries across the country

Background of the Issue

  • The Supreme Court modified its judgment on mandatory eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) of a minimum one kilometre around protected forests, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries across the country.
  • ESZs cannot be uniform across the country and have to be “protected area-specific.”
  • The June 2022 judgment affected hundreds of villages in the peripheries of forests, and the Centre and several States, including Kerala, returned to the apex court seeking modification of the judgment.

What are ESZs?

Eco Sensitive Zones (ESZs) are protected areas as per the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, of 1986. declared by state governments within 10 km of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries

They are notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change under the National Wildlife Action Plan prepared by the MoEFCC.

  • Purpose: The purpose of ESZs is to create a “shock absorber” for protected areas and act as a transition zone from areas of high protection to those involving lesser protection.
  • Prohibited activities: Within ESZs, prohibited activities include commercial mining, industries causing pollution, establishment of major hydroelectric projects, commercial use of wood, and certain tourism activities.
  • Regulated activities: Regulated activities within ESZs include felling of trees, establishment of hotels and resorts, commercial use of natural water, erection of electrical cables, drastic changes to agriculture systems, and widening of roads.
  • Permitted activities: Permitted activities within ESZs include ongoing agricultural or horticultural practices, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, use of renewable energy sources, and adoption of green technology for all activities.
  • Management: The protected areas are based on the core and buffer model of management, through which local area communities are also protected and benefitted.

Guidelines for declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) in India

  • The declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) in India is guided by laws such as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Environmental Protection Act, 1986.
  • The National Board for Wildlife is mandated by law to promote the conservation and development of wildlife and forests through suitable measures.
  • The Union Environment Ministry is empowered to take necessary measures for the protection of the environment and control of pollution.
  • Rule 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 allows the central government to restrict the location of industries and certain processes and operations based on various considerations, including environmentally compatible land use, biological diversity of an area, and proximity to protected areas.
  • The government has effectively used these laws and rules to declare ESZs or EFAs, even though the term “Eco-Sensitive Zones” is not explicitly mentioned in the laws.

What had the Court said in 2022?

  • The 2022 Court ruling stated that mandatory ESZs would act as a transition zone from areas of high protection to areas requiring less protection.
  • The three-judge bench highlighted the destruction of the country’s natural resources through unregulated mining and other activities.
  • The ruling was delivered in a writ petition seeking the protection of forest lands in the Nilgiris district, Tamil Nadu, and enlarged to include the protection of natural resources throughout the country.
  • The Court directed that the state should act as a trustee for the benefit of the public through natural resources in a manner that ensured sustainable development.The Court emphasized the role of the state as a protector of natural resources, which is relevant in the era of climate change and global warming.
  • The state should not prioritize the facilitation of economic activities in order to attain short-term financial advantages. In all cases where the ESZ was above one km in size, it would remain so.
  • In those cases where a statutory decision was pending on the size of the ESZ, the Court’s one km directive would be applicable until a final decision was taken under the law.

Reasons for Change in Judgment

  • A stringent observance of the June 2022 judgment would cause more harm than good, and man-animal conflicts would increase.
  • It would also stop construction of basic structures for the villagers, eco-development activities, and national projects like highways, railways, and defense infrastructure. However, mining within the protected areas and one-kilometer area from their boundaries will not be allowed
  • State Forest departments could not conduct eco-development activities in the region surrounding the protected areas and the Central sponsored Scheme – Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats which assisted in ecological development activities could not be efficiently
  • The wording of new rules implies that it is not mandatory to take the consent of Gram Sabha before diversion of forest. Moreover, the new rules allow the Union Government to permit the clearing of a forest before consulting its inhabitants. This is akin to forced consent, the inhabitants will have no choice but to accept. implemented.

Significance of Eco-Sensitive Zone

  • In-situ conservation: ESZ aids in the conservation of endangered species in their natural habitats. This helps maintain the ecological balance. For instance, the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh is an ESZ which is home to various rare and endangered species like the Western Tragopan, Himalayan Tahr and Snow Leopard.
  • Conservation of flora and fauna: ESZs aid in the conservation of flora and fauna of the protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. This helps minimise deforestation. For example, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala is an ESZ which is home to diverse flora and fauna like the Indian giant squirrel, sambar deer, and Nilgiri Tahr.
  • Benefit to Indigenous and local communities: ESZ demarcation benefits indigenous and local communities as they can isolate themselves from the interference of outsiders. For instance, the Nameri National Park in Assam is an ESZ which is home to the Mishing tribe who have been living there for generations.
  • Sustainable development: ESZs help in balancing the environment and development by regulating activities that occur in the area without harming the environment. For example, the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa are ESZs which help regulate tourist activities.

Concerns associated with ESZ: The implementation of ESZs may have negative impacts on local communities, traditional practices, and the environment such as

  • The declaration of homelands as ESZs has adversely impacted the daily lives of locals.
  • Traditional practices, employment opportunities, and living standards have been restricted due to the declaration of ESZ status.
  • Encouragement of tourism in ESZs is a threat to indigenous communities’ lifestyles, and could lead to environmental degradation and displacement of locals.
  • Local forest communities allege that the government has failed to acknowledge their rights.
  • Climate change and introduction of exotic species in ecologically fragile zones due to tourism have affected naturally occurring species.
  • Traditional practices of indigenous communities, such as slash-and-burn cultivation, and increased demand for forest produce due to population growth, pose challenges to these fragile environments.

Here are some ways forward

  • Implement a flexible and area-specific approach to ESZs: A fixed minimum limit of one km for a Sanctuary/NP with a few square kilometers should not be the same as the PAs having an area of hundreds of square kilometers. For instance, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh and Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai cannot rationally maintain the ESZ boundary of one km.
  • Balancing development and environment: While development is necessary, it should not come at the expense of forest degradation. Therefore, the interest of all stakeholders, including indigenous communities living in the forest area, must be balanced.
  • Regulation-focused approach: India has a constitutional duty to protect and improve the natural environment under Article 51-A (g) The delineation of ESZs should be site-specific and relate to regulation, rather than prohibition, of specific activities to reduce negative impacts on the fragile ecosystems surrounding protected areas.
  • Consultation and collaboration: The implementation of ESZs requires unanimous approval from all states. Therefore, there is a need for a consultation meeting among all states, the central government, and the judiciary to address any genuine concerns raised by state governments, reducing future conflicts.
  • Consider indigenous concerns: Indigenous communities living in forest areas will be affected by implementing this rule. Proper amendments are necessary to ensure their lives and livelihoods are not affected. Properly identify the eco-sensitive zones and mandatory execution of ESZ for each National Park and Sanctuary.

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